Your liver is your body's natural detox machine. It works together with your kidneys to filter your blood, removing everything from excess unnecessary vitamins to toxic substances that would hurt your cells if they got through. All of those toxins and excess substances are funneled out through urine and other excretions. At least, that's how it's supposed to work.
Sometimes, your liver doesn't work at peak performance. Conditions such as sluggish liver, congested liver, and fatty liver disease can all inhibit your body's ability to get rid of toxins. There are telltale symptoms of a liver problem that you can watch for, and we'll give you the rundown in a moment. First, though, a disclaimer.
A Needful Disclaimer
Before we get into the symptoms of a sluggish liver, we need to say a couple of things.
First of all, "sluggish liver" isn't a recognized disease. Sluggish and congested livers are a colloquial term for when your liver, gallbladder, and occasionally kidneys aren't functioning at peak performance. The actual underlying cause might be something different, like fatty liver disease, liver damage, liver cancer, hepatitis, cirrhosis, or another problem.
It's important that you don't attempt to diagnose and treat a liver condition in a way that could damage your organs further. Your liver is very resilient – it has to be, to handle toxic substances all day – but that means damaging it (especially if it's already weak) is extremely dangerous. If you suspect that you might have liver disease or a liver ailment, consult with a doctor to get it checked out.
As always, of course, we're not doctors or health specialists. We're a store with a passion for health, trying to make sense of all of the misinformation in the health and supplement world. We always try to cite sources and provide studies to back up our claims, and we're always open to corrections. If something we've said in this post is incorrect, please leave a comment to help correct it.
Alright, with that out of the way, let's talk about the symptoms of liver problems that you can watch for and try to recognize.
1: Lack of Appetite
Number one on the list, according to Mayo Clinic, is a loss of appetite. If you're used to having hunger pangs at certain times, and you've recently stopped having them, examine any changes you've made to your lifestyle or your situation. Sometimes, it could be a change in activity or diet that causes your reduced hunger and appetite. However, if you haven't made any other changes to your lifestyle recently, it's entirely possible that the lack of appetite is related to liver disease.
Unfortunately, this is a very subtle symptom, and it's very common whenever there's anything wrong with your body. Lack of appetite on its own does not indicate liver problems, but if you combine it with other symptoms on this list, it can be a strong indication.
2: Inconsistent Sleep Patterns
Sleep is crucial for a healthy body and a healthy lifestyle. Ideally, you'll be able to sleep soundly for 8 hours a night, as recommended by doctors and sleep specialists. If something is wrong with your body, especially the liver, you might find that your sleep is disrupted.
Many people often cite "waking up for no reason between 2-3 a.m." as a symptom of sluggish liver. The truth is, any sleep disruption, not just those specific hours, can be an indication of something wrong. Just be aware that most diseases cause sleep disruptions, as do lifestyle stressors and other problems, so this alone isn't an indication of liver problems, just of problems in general.
3: Foggy Memory
Another common symptom of liver disease is a foggy memory. If your memory is bad – especially if it has gotten worse recently – it might be due to something called hepatic encephalopathy, which is a build-up of fluid and toxins in the brain caused by a poorly functioning liver.
Again, this needs to be real memory issues. If you can't really recall what you had for breakfast yesterday, that's not terribly important. Forgetting where you put the remote or your keys is normal. Forgetting critical dates, important tasks at work, or consistently forgetting things throughout the day are more serious signs.
4: Chronic Fatigue
Do you feel sluggish? Are you tired all the time? Do you have trouble waking up and going about your day? Do you feel like you're crashing when it's barely even the afternoon?
Chronic fatigue affects millions of people worldwide. It, like many of the symptoms above, can be a result of nearly any disease or distress the body experiences. Your sleep is when your body spends time and energy restoring itself, but anything from a poor diet to a new stressor can disrupt sleep.
That said, it's thought that liver problems can interfere with neurotransmitters in the brain, which can disrupt sleep patterns and make it harder for you to get an appropriate amount of rest. Again, while it's common on its own, it can be part of an overall bigger picture that might be concerning.
5: Itchy Skin
There are two different liver problems that can cause your skin to itch. One is cirrhosis of the liver, which is liver damage that results in scarring that inhibits the overall function of the liver. The other is called primary biliary cholangitis, which is when the bile ducts in your liver are damaged, often permanently.
Of course, itchy skin might just be a symptom of a skin allergy, or dirty skin, or just a topical irritation. You might be noticing a trend here; a lot of liver problems have very generic symptoms, which is why it's so easy to point to them to say someone needs a detox when they really need to exfoliate.
6: Yellowing Eyes or Skin
One of the most prominent liver-specific diseases you've probably heard of before is called jaundice. Jaundice is characterized by the whites of your eyes turning yellow, a yellow complexion to your skin, and other subtle discolorations. It's caused by a build-up of bilirubin, a pigment your liver creates but is also supposed to get rid of.
Jaundice can be caused by a number of different liver problems, and it's common in newborns. It's often curable, but it can be a distressing thing to see. Many people are conditioned to believe that jaundice means immediate liver failure, but while it's important to see a doctor, it's not necessarily going to kill you.
7: Sudden Weight Gain
We all struggle with our weight. Weight gain can be oppressive, especially if it's sudden and unexplained.
It's the "unexplained" that's the key here. If you go from working out five times a week to not working out at all, you're likely to gain weight. If you suddenly start eating something unhealthy, or just eating more than you used to, you'll probably gain weight. You can also start to gain weight as you get older and your metabolism slows down. None of these have to do with your liver.
If your liver is damaged, though, it can fail to process and purge the excess nutrients that would usually pass through you. When those nutrients are still stuck in your system, your body converts them into fat to store them. Unfortunately, that just means weight gain, no matter how much you're working out to try to stop it.
8: Nausea After Fatty Meals
Your liver is primarily responsible for breaking down and getting rid of fat in the body. When you eat a meal that is packed full of fat, like marbled red meat or a bunch of fried food, that floods your system with fats that your liver has to break down.
If your liver is sluggish or damaged, it's going to have a harder time breaking down and processing all of that fat. Meanwhile, the fat circulating through your digestive system and bloodstream leaves you feeling nauseous, warm, moist, and sticky. It's generally unpleasant, and if it consistently happens after high-fat meals, you might have liver damage. Unfortunately, many Keto practitioners and CrossFit fans suffer from this as well.
9: Upper-Right Side Pain
Your liver is large, about the size of an American football. It's also not centered; it's off to the right side of your torso, up underneath your ribs, and below your lungs.
If this area sounds familiar, and you recognize it because you have pain in that area, you might have some kind of liver issue. Many different problems with the liver can manifest in the form of sporadic aches or sharp pains.
To be clear, the occasional ache or pain is not a sure sign of liver failure. A million different things can cause brief spikes of pain, and many of them are harmless. Just be aware of your liver when you're concerned about liver issues.
10: Dark Urine
As we mentioned up above, the liver is responsible for filtering blood and funnels the toxins it filters out into the bladder to be expelled with the urine. If your urine is extremely dark, no matter how much you keep yourself hydrated, one of the possible reasons is a liver that isn't functioning properly.
Note that dark urine can also be a sign of dehydration or of kidney damage. It might be worth consulting with your doctor to see if it's a cause for concern or if it's just something you need to keep an eye on. Additionally, it can sometimes be a sign of a change in diet or even eating foods that include dyes, so it's not guaranteed organ damage. Just be careful.
11: Unusually Colored Stool
Stool, or feces, usually has a brownish color that might tend to be lighter or darker or take on colors from what you eat, like greens or blues from dyes.
If your stool is unusually pale, it can be a sign of liver problems. Much of what the liver passes into your stool is darker colored, so a lack of that substance leaves the stool looking pale. Conversely, too much of it makes stool look dark and can be just as dangerous.
Watch out, in particular, for black stool. Black stool is a sign of internal bleeding and is extremely dangerous and worth visiting the emergency room over.
Gynecomastia, or enlarged or swollen breasts, is an issue primarily affecting men. If you're male and you're experiencing swollen or enlarged breasts, you might have a liver problem.
The issue here is actually because of how your liver interacts with your endocrine system. Liver damage can disrupt hormones, including testosterone and estrogen, which are responsible for sex characteristics.
13: Personality and Mood Changes
Mood swings, personality changes, and other cognitive changes can be terrifying, especially because you might not be the one that notices them. To you, everything might seem normal, but your friends and family notice more moodiness, more anger or depression, or other cognitive issues. If you've had this pointed out to you, or if you've noticed it yourself, it could be the same thing that causes memory problems: a sluggish liver leading to a build-up of bad chemicals in the brain.
14: Easy Bruising
As you age, your skin thins out, and your body grows less resilient. One of the main ways this becomes visible is in increased susceptibility to bruising. However, this is an effect that occurs gradually over the course of years. If you've had sudden and unexplained bruises popping up over the last few weeks or months, and they're worse and last longer than normal, it might be a sign of liver problems.
15: Abdominal Pain and Swelling
Some forms of liver disease and damage cause the liver itself to swell up, enlarge, and grow tender. This is a combination of a build-up of fat and other "stuff" in the liver, as well as inflammation. If you notice that the right side of your abdomen, under the ribs, is swollen, hard to the touch, excessively warm, or bloated, it might be a sign of liver disease.
For most of these symptoms, you don't need to be immediately concerned. It can be worth pursuing a healthier diet, investigating a detox program, detox kit, or a liver support tea, and scheduling a meeting with your primary care physician. However, if you have many of them, if they're very sudden or unexplained, or if they're extreme, you should consider a trip to the ER. Better safe than sorry, right?